Attributes of Great Project Managers

Delivering successful projects is a key need for all businesses and IT groups alike. But as we all know, many projects fail or are only partially successful. Projects represent a large proportion of a business’s budget, so when projects don’t succeed a lot of money is wasted. Improving the chance that a project succeeds should be a goal of CIOs. Having the ‘right’ project or program manager (PM) increases the chances of successful project delivery. But how do you find the ‘right’ PM? And what attributes should the  ‘right’ PM have?

I came across a study from the CIO Executive Board that identified what differentiates good from average PMs. Here are some of the Board’s findings:

Skills and Experience

The first selection criteria many organisations use for candidates for PM positions is project management certification. The Board’s study found that mere certification does not predict PM effectiveness.  The results also revealed that PMs with a strong technology background do not necessarily make good PMs.  This is because, PMs with diverse experience across both technology and business areas are typically more effective. Similarly, the study found that PMs that have ability in a broad range of technology or other domains were more effective than specialist PMs with ability in only one field. The implications from these results are that organisations should look to hire PMs that have diverse sets of experience in business and technology, and not rely too heavily on certifications alone.

Knowledge of the Business

Effective PMs understand not only ‘how’ but also ‘why’. They know the goals of their projects and know how these goals fit within the overall goals of the organisation. Effective PMs understand the organisational context within which the project operates. We all have seen too many PMs, who are so focused on their own project goals and success that they ignore everything else. In these cases, even if the project meets its goals, the project fails to deliver the benefits expected.

Understanding the organisation’s goals and strategies enables PMs to broker consensus from the conflicting agendas of the various stakeholders. If PMs lack this organisational knowledge, providing them with a mentor, who has the right organisational knowledge can help increase PM effectiveness.

Managing Stakeholders

High performing PMs become ‘business partners’ and not just ‘order-takers’. Order-takers typically focus on delivering what is specified even if it is incorrect or even if the circumstances change. On the other hand, ‘business partners’ improve their own credibility and gain the trust of the project sponsor, due to their understanding of a variety of project scenarios. As a result, ‘business partners’ are able to tailor their communications and frame their problems to overcome difficulties or  find the correct way forward.

Effective PMs develop relationships across the organisation so that they understand organisational dynamics, conflicting agendas, and the different personalities of key stakeholders within the organisation. This enables these PMs to consistently avoid barriers and successfully steer through complex issues.

Smart PMs tailor their communications to suit the needs of the key project stakeholders. Technology projects have both technical and business stakeholders with quite different needs and knowledge. Good PMs can convey the project’s progress and challenges with the right level of jargon and detail to different audiences, while at the same time maintaining their engagement with the project. Technical PMs typically use language that is foreign to business people. When key decisions are not understood or endorsed by key stakeholders, this can lead to costly consequences.

Team Leadership Ability

The importance of team leadership skills is often underestimated when businesses select PMs. Effective PMs understand what the team needs and tailor their communications with the team to drive the team’s performance. These PMs correctly assess and leverage team members’ skills, and are able to gain the trust of their team members.

Poor PMs, or ‘bullies’, run the team into the ground while the project is delivered. Although PMs with a poor track record of team leadership may make some short-term visible gains, these PMs often constrain the long-term success of the project. Team morale is a good indicator of a PM’s effectiveness. Good PMs not only deliver the project outcomes, but build a team’s capabilities throughout the project.

Ownership and Commitment

According to the study, two of the top three drivers of PM effectiveness are “passion to succeed”, and an “ability to meet internal deadlines”. When selecting PMs, leaders should seek potential candidates, who show these attributes.

Good PMs understand and help define the project success criteria. These PMs then become internal project champions by demonstrating passion in delivering the project and holding themselves accountable for the project’s success. Good PMs don’t find excuses for non delivery, rather, they strive to deliver the best outcomes.

Effective PMs follow the standard project processes, but look for ways to improve these process to remove bottleneck, time-consuming step, and other inefficiencies. CIOs should support and allow effective PMs to suggest process improvements where right.

Managing Project Risks

Effective PMs are skilled in anticipating the risks that will come up throughout the project life-cycle. These PMs not only identify risks, but are also effective in developing strategies to mitigate these risks. Effective PMs also communicate these risks to other stakeholders, to gain support for the mitigation of these risks.

The study found that there was a large difference in the ability to anticipate and manage risks between the top and bottom performers. So it would be advisable to use this as a filter in selecting PMs for critical projects.

Grace under Fire

Projects are stressful; a smooth running project is a rarity. Good PMs can maintain their cool and stay level-headed in times of crisis. They maintain composure and guide their teams through the myriad of crises and challenges that projects encounter.

Problems Solving and Quick Learning

The best PMs are experts at solving the problems that a project encounters. These PMs deal with insufficient or ambiguous information and are quick learners who rapidly draw lessons from unfamiliar situations and concepts. The best PMS are able to modify their own behaviour based on these lessons learnt.

Driven to Success

Good PMs are ambitious and success oriented. Organisations need to recognise this and create development pathways for PMs to progress to more senior roles. If organisations fail to look after good PMs, they will find challenges and opportunities elsewhere.

Summary

Project success depends on having the right project managers in place. I hope this article has given you useful guidance on the attributes of successful PMs that you can use in the PM selection and development process.

What other attributes you have found that characterise good PMs? Please let me know.

Managing talent with 9-box grid

Career pathsWhen we think of talent management, we immediately think of managing bright and high potential employees. But although ‘star talent’ are important in any business, just managing stars is not enough. A high performing team means managers have to understand the performance and contribution from all the team and manage the talent pool. Often talent management is the missing ingredient from many IT strategies. While great emphasis is given to obtaining hot technical skills managing existing talent appears to be forgotten.

I came across two management tools, one is called the ‘Career Crossroads Model’ and other is a ‘9 box-grid’. I found these tools useful with the challenge of managing leadership talent. The Career Crossroads Model also helps guide the long-term career development of individuals in the context of the organisation’s needs. I hope you will also find these useful.

Many approaches to strengthening leadership capabilities focus on individual ‘stars’ rather than the whole leadership bench. Leaders drive results and if there are gaps in their ability, performance suffers. If the gaps are known, development plans can be created.

Career Crossroads Model

As an individual progresses though careers, s/he progress through a number of natural crossroads. Usually the individual will advance from ‘managing oneself’ to ‘managing others’, then ‘managing functions’, to ‘managing business’ and so on. Each of these crossroads needs different skills and job experience. For example, technical skills are required to manage oneself whilst P&L management and business strategy skills are needed to manage a business. Individuals step into a new role, grow in that role and get ready for the next career crossroad. In good organisation practices there is no instant move from one level to another at a much higher level (e.g. from managing oneself to becoming a functional manager). Each crossroad is also called a ‘turn’ opportunity.

Performance and potential

Good potential leads to good performance. However, potential is not an absolute measure. In an earlier article, I had discussed the idea of potential being a combination of demonstrated capabilities, ambition/motivation (to take on the challenges at the new crossroads level) and alignment with the organisation’ needs in terms of career progression. The Crossroads Model helps assess potential based on prior performance. When an individual does not have all three aspects of potential, performance suffers.

Performance

In judging performance there needs to a clear and complete job definition. It must define what is required to be successful in the role as well as what customers, shareholders, team and colleagues require. If the job is described as a circle and each dimension of performance done well is shown as a line, the following representations of performance emerge.

Exceptional performance meets performance criteria in many job dimensions, whilst full performance meets performance criteria in all job dimensions (note: this is a simplified example, in reality complications such as exceeding some dimensions and not meeting others can arise). Exceptional performers need to be given larger jobs otherwise they will leave and find challenges elsewhere. Developing performers on the other hand, need more time in the role and need help to improve their performance.

Levels of Potential

There are three levels of potential: Turn, Growth and Mastery.
1.Turn Potential – The ability and desire to move to a job at a higher level on the Career Crossroads Model.
2.Growth Potential – The ability and desire to move to a bigger/more complex job on the same level.
3.Mastery potential – The ability and desire to balance current and changing job requirements and deepen experience and specialisation on the same current level.

The 9-box grid

The 9-box potential performance grid provides an easy way to plot leadership talent in the organisation on a single page. It’s a great way to create an open dialogue amongst a leadership team. Open discussions and multiple perspectives allow better calibration of ratings and expectations and a shared ownership of the organisation’s talent pool. It’s a great way to identify development needs and succession planning opportunities.

Using the 9-box grid

The grid is used in two ways; to plan individual career development and to plan and manage the talent pool in the organisation. There is development action associated with each of the 9 boxes. In brief these are:

  1. Ready for a move to the next level within the next 12 months.
  2. Move to a larger role on the same level within 12-24 months.
  3. Coach and develop to be exceptional performer.
  4. Leverage mastery for the benefit of the organisation. Reward and recognise. Use their help to develop high performers.
  5. Manage /coach to improve performance.
  6. These can be employees who have moved to a new level. Coach/ develop to continue to have a turn potential.
  7. Develop to become exceptional performers.
  8. Assess the reasons for lack of performance. Coach/develop to become fully performing.
  9. As above or move out in the next 12 months.

Effective organisations have a mix of people in all the boxes. Many organisations just focus on the top talent (boxes 1-3) and forget the needs of the people in other boxes. Employees in the boxes 4, 5 and 7 are valuable employees who can have deep expertise in their areas. The challenge is to keep the skills of these employees up to date as business and technology changes. Over time the market forces and change would push the performance levels up, so staff would need to keep up to maintain full performance. Managers ought to help employees improve performance as well as try and lift growth potential of the team.

Ideal talent mix

Different business situations demand different mixes of talent.
Start-up – An organisation in the start-up or high growth phases would need to have a much higher proportion of high potential individuals than one in the mature stages. Start-ups require a high number of ready to grow employees and leaders as well as seasoned professionals (box 4).
Growing business – A growing business needs a high proportion of exceptional performers and a pipeline of talent to move to the next crossroad levels as the business grows and new opportunities emerge.
Consolidation – A business in a consolidation mode
would not have many opportunities for people to take on larger jobs. Hence, they would need lower numbers in boxes 1, 2, 3. There may be more people in boxes 8 and 9 as they try to do more with less and raise the bar.
Normal Business – In a normal business, the ideal mix may look like the below. There would be smaller proportion of high performers and low performers with the middle performers / mid potential staff in higher numbers.

Conclusion

The 9-box model provides an easy and effective way to manage talent. It helps identify the category of the employee and tailor appropriate development plans to groom them. When there is a shortage of talent it is even more important to use the model to optimise performance and help employees grow within the organisation. What I like about the model is that it does not solely focus on high fliers but also recognises the important role played by the ‘solid’ performers who keep the organisation ticking along.

Beyond service management

Introduction

ServiceMost of the IT service organisations have adopted ITIL or similar service management disciplines. Service management requires new processes for users. Service is provided only after a service request is raised, new initiatives need a business justification, service level agreements need to be in place, and the list goes on. Any experienced IT manager would tell you that certain disciples are necessary to be able to deliver reliable and cost effective IT service.

Many IT groups get so bound by these processes and rules that they forget about the end customer satisfaction. Some customers find these processes cumbersome but just stop complaining. Others find the process of justification too difficult and their legitimate needs are not met. Here are some approaches that I have used to move from service management towards service excellence and high customer satisfaction.

Understand the business

IT organisations exist to support and enable the business. If IT staff, and I am not just talking about the business analysts, don’t understand the business, the ability of IT to provide excellent service is hampered. In the case of a communication failing to branch or store, I have seen IT staff being entirely focussed on service standards for their silo without having any idea of the real impact it is having on the business and customers. Improving IT boffins’ the business understanding is not difficult, but it does require a sustained effort. Especially when the IT group is large and not co-located with the users.

Visit the key operating areas

Regular visits by small IT teams to see the business operations is a must.  The idea is to meet the actual users of the systems and technology. See how well the systems and technologies support the staff do their job. Are they reliable? What happens when systems fail or are slow? Are the systems too difficult to use? Is there a training issue? The idea is to learn what is happening and to avoid the temptation to provide instant solutions.

Learn the business language

Every business has its own terminology and language. Teach IT staff the basics e.g. accounting, supply chain terminology or investment banking. Common language creates a greater understanding, breaks down silos and develops empathy.

Business analysis skills

IT staff can have a tendency to provide instant solutions even before they fully understand the problem. Learning how to ask questions, understanding the situation fully as well as gathering and analysing facts would ensure you are solving the right problems and providing good solutions.

Operational Account Management

The concept of account relationship managers is not new. Typically account managers focus on strategy and other big-ticket issues because they usually don’t have the time or desire to be bogged down with smaller issues.

Focus on operational issues

Use experienced service leaders to proactively focus on operational issues that affect the performance of the operating units. Assign them a small budget to authorise minor equipment upgrades or other improvements that address niggling issues. Larger issues would be escalated to relationship managers.

Example:  In one organisation, remote branches had very old PCs and others had a very slow network. Either user never reported these problems or they may have reported these problems in the past but no action was taken. The PCs were replaced from the refresh budget and the lines were upgraded at a minimal cost. This demonstrated that IT cares about user needs and is proactive.

Operational account managers will regularly meet with team leaders and managers from business areas to understand their problems. They will (along with team visits) identify training gaps, issues with aging equipment, systems usability issues and other process issues. At times, they will act as user champions inside IT to improve level of service and customer satisfaction.

Service Desk

Most organisations now have a central IT service desk. Using a service desk as a single point of contact for routine service requests is an established practice. Here are a few tips to improve the service desk:

Measure customer satisfaction.

Most service desks measure performance in a number of ways. Key measures include, calls answered within a defined time, calls abandoned, calls per agent and first call resolution (e.g. how many problems were fixed in the first call). Measuring customer satisfaction for a random selection of closed (and open) requests gives timely and specific feedback on the performance of the service desk, which can be achieved by follow up calls or emails soon after. This satisfaction measure should be used in addition to monthly or quarterly satisfaction measures, as the latter tend to measure the overall service.

Use of self-service

Many common problems, like password resets, result in a lot of users making phone calls to the IT service desk (especially on Monday mornings). Using self-service tools for these types of problems would free IT staff from doing boring tasks. There are many good examples of self-service used by Microsoft, Google and E-bay using FAQs, diagnostic tips, software downloads and password resets. With a small investment these techniques can be utilised in the enterprise as well.

Use of Web 2.0

Another way to encourage self-help is put solutions to common problems (FAQ) on a Wiki, blog or message board. Allowing users to post and contribute to the site would enrich the knowledge base. However, care should be taken to monitor the forum so that ‘bad practices’ do not propagate. Web forums are also helpful to identify areas where applications or services can be improved.

Customer Centric Metrics

Most IT organisations measure availability of the servers, websites and the network, which many times only have a loose correlation with the actual user experience. For example, network and servers may be working but a key business process may be running slow from an application issue or from being overloaded. Therefore, in addition to measuring the availability of the servers, CIOs should take steps to introduce customer centric measures.

Align measures to key business processes

The first step is to identify key business processes (e.g. loan approval, store checkout process) that are important for external customer service. The second step is to identify what system/s enable the service to be performed in an acceptable manner. The third step is to measure the performance (availability and response times) of these systems and then report these measures. These metrics clearly demonstrate how well IT systems support actual business performance.

Customer centric measures create a direct and measurable link between business operations, customer service and IT service. These measures help the IT staff to focus on more granular service indicators (e.g. in the retail environment measuring store checkout down time is more important than server/ network availability). Existing system performance measurement tools can be used for these measures.

Communication during outages

One of the major bugbears in many businesses is the lack of information from IT about major changes and outages. This becomes an important issue during major systems problems and installations. The IT team may be working very hard to fix the issue, but the business users have no visibility of what is going on and feel that IT is not taking their issues seriously.

Incidence manager

Assigning someone with the specific responsibility of communicating with key managers and team leaders during outages is critical. This person cannot get involved in the nitty-gritty of solving the problem but must focus on providing timely communications and updates via the available channels (e.g. recorded messages, phone calls, website updates and meeting key staff). Support Incidence manager with incidence coordinator/s.

Be visible

In one instance, we were having intermittent problems with a business process, which was affecting the business. We placed a technical person in the area for a couple of days. In addition to getting timely and reliable data on the problem, IT was able to demonstrate empathy and urgency, which went a long way towards improving service satisfaction. Similarly having people on ground during major changes cab boost confidence and lead to speedy problem reporting.

Summary

This is by no means an exhaustive list of ideas. Key thoughts here are to go beyond impersonal processes of service management and develop better business understanding, empathy and trust, leading to improved customer satisfaction.

For a detailed discussion and/or information on strategies for service excellence, please contact the author.

Gaining traction for your IT strategy

Developing an IT strategy that is understood and accepted by the business and IT practitioners is a major challenge for many businesses. A lot of effort is invested in developing an elegant strategy, the future state architecture is sound and the board is pleased. Still, beyond one or two new projects, the strategy fails to get traction and there is large gap between the strategy and quality of the results.

Unlike most strategy consultants Kogekar Consulting have extensive experience in execution planning. We have helped clients create IT strategies that are well understood and effectively executed. Here we summarise key learning from our experience – how to plan an effective IT strategy and engage stakeholders.

Executive Summary

Creating an IT strategy that is understood and effectively executed by the stakeholders has been a difficult challenge in many IT Groups.  This is rarely acknowledged but results in a lack of adoption or operationalization. There are many reasons for this:

  • Focus of the strategy tends to the board or C-level team, which make the document too high level for the typical middle manager whose support is needed for implementation.
  • Strategists and architects, who focus on big ideas, typically drive strategy development and complex concepts. These concepts are difficult to execute, thus they appear to be disconnected from the on the ground realities of IT. Practitioner involvement can provide a different type of thinking, which enhances the abilities to execute the strategy.
  • Strategy needs to take account of people and operational realities. Often there is little effort made to engage with stakeholders like key business managers, IT middle managers and experts during the strategy development process. Lack of engagement further reduces their buy-in. However, these stakeholders are absolutely essential for bringing realism and ‘owning’ strategy execution.
  • Few understand that a good strategic planning process also requires the utmost attention to the ‘hows’ of execution. It’s substance and detail must come from people who are closest to the action and understand their customers, resources and capabilities.
  • Many strategies underestimate the effort required to create the new organisational capabilities. Strategies also fail to provide a framework for identifying and developing talent – at all levels – talent that is needed to execute the strategies.
  • One key aim of the strategy is to establish a direction and state ‘how we shall operate”. The specific programs and initiatives get all the attention, and overshadow the underlying philosophy.

The successful execution of the strategy requires that not only the board and senior executives of the company approve the strategy. But also, other stakeholders like department managers, project leaders and key support staff understand the strategy and are clear about their role in the execution. Strategy execution requires going down from a 50,000 ft to may be 50 ft level. This requires identification, prioritisation and implementation of very specific actions. Many organizations don’t realise the contribution practitioners can make to a realistic execution planning.
Strategy planning is a great opportunity for engaging stakeholders. It provides a process to understand how well IT is supporting the business, where the business is headed, how the business and technology landscape is changing and what we must do to improve our effectiveness.  It is also an opportunity to communicate, “what we shall do differently” because if nothing changes, the new strategy becomes just a piece of paper.

Strategy Development Process

The strategy process is a four-step process:

1) Where are we now?

2) How is the business/ IT landscape changing?

3) Where do we want to be?

4) How do we get there?

  1. Where we are now? is a comprehensive analysis of the current state of IT in the organization including, what IT does well, how well IT supports the business, how our costs and services compare with others, how flexible or adaptable we are, what the major risks and shortcomings are? Understanding where we are and how we got there is critical to a sound strategy. In this conversation, input is sought from the business leaders, process owners, IT architects, managers and specialists.
  2. How is the business / IT landscape changing? This step is to understand the drivers of change. Often technologists focus only on technical changes e.g. SOA and not other areas. Changes to the business operating conditions and business strategies are an essential driver. Changes in the competition, their strategies and investment programs, and the advent and industry adoption of new technologies are other change drivers.  Emergence of new third party services and service providers can also change the IT landscape. Change in regulation such as GST, anti-money laundering or email discovery create yet another change dimension.
  3. Where do we want to be? Understanding of the current situation and the changing landscape leads us to choices about the desired future state. Stakeholder perspectives are important here as well. How can we best support the business in the future? What capabilities are needed? What do IT staff wants? These multiple perspectives the shape the future state. They will determine shape of the future organization, the technology architecture and what competencies are needed.
  4. How do we get there? Sub-strategies and roadmaps, which move the organization from the present to the future form the migration, plan. Organizations often become too focussed in the migration plans and tend to forget the underlying reasons or principles that guide the migration.

Key Lessons for IT strategy development

    1. IT strategy requires strong sponsorship and participation by the CIO or the IT head. Enterprise strategies driven by head of architecture or other such functional heads have limited chance of success.  Support from other C-level executives is necessary for a strong business engagement.
    2. It is a mistake to consider IT strategy development as an exclusive ivory tower exercise. Design it as a participative process, allowing stakeholder engagement. Identify key stakeholders at the start of the process.
      1. Strategy / planning managers in business and in the CFO’s office can provide great input on business strategy.
      2. Business process owners and project managers can provide input on the current state and help with a realistic migration plan
      3. IT managers and key specialists need to be convinced that the strategy addresses their challenges and is realistic. Getting buy-in from key opinion leaders helps greatly with the credibility of the strategy credibility in the eyes of the troops.
      4. Teams respond well when treated in a mature manner. Allow their manager to lead the communication/ feedback sessions.
    3. IT centric strategies don’t work. There needs to be a strong linkage with business strategy (written or unwritten).
    4. Current state analysis often focuses on architecture and technology issues and ignores organisational capabilities, risks, people and leadership issues. Understanding current service and project delivery capability would provide a stronger foundation for strategy.
    5. IT strategies tend to be too ambitious, hoping to achieve a major turn around in technology, people culture and processes in a relatively short time frame. Considering legacy systems and COBOL have been in place for nearly 40-50 years, one has be realistic about organization’s ability to change. Focus the effort on critical improvement drivers.
    6. The need to develop people capabilities is often forgotten in the rush to new applications or technologies. But without the right people these new technologies will not deliver to their potential.
    7. Strategy defines where we want to go. It must be followed by an operating plan, which defines the path, the one-year goals, programs and initiatives. If the operating plan is not based on realistic assumptions, there is little chance of success.
    8. Including guiding principles for architecture and operating models in the strategy allows greater clarity and provides guidance to the entire organization. Otherwise only the teams working on new projects are engaged in the strategy.
    9. Use of strategy themes and distinguishing high priority items from others will provide flexibility in implementation and allow adjustment as funding and priorities change over time.
    10. Use of balanced scorecards for managers and team helps track the implementation progress on a number of dimensions.

If you would like help with your IT strategy development or more information, please contact us.

Kogekar consulting has assisted banks, insurance companies and other major organizations to develop strategic plans, roadmaps and architectures. For these we integrate the strategy development steps with stakeholder participation and communication activities. Our approach moves the strategy development process out of the ivory tower and increases the organizations buy-in and improves adoption.